Dark Thoughts at Christmas
2007-12-20 by Alan Meyers
I don't preach regularly, but on December 30 I have agreed to supply the pulpit at the congregation of which I am a part. By an entire coincidence, I have also agreed to be guest blogger here for that Sunday. This seems providential: the appointed readings seem so difficult that I'm glad to be required to get started early on thinking about them!
Heavy thoughts to throw into the midst of a congregation's Christmas festivities! Next Sunday presents a happier prospect, as we celebrate the Epiphany, with its beautiful though so-familiar story of the mysterious visitors from far away who come to pay homage to the newborn Christ in Bethlehem. But this Sunday's Gospel begins after the visitors have already gone, and tells a dark and terrible tale. "Herod the king, in his raging, charged he hath this day, his men of might, in his own sight, all young children to slay…" (Coventry Carol). Having learned from the Magi that "the king of the Jews" has been born, but having been denied information from those same Magi about exactly where the infant king may be found, Herod resorts to killing every child in the vicinity of Bethlehem who might possibly be his tiny rival for the throne (Matt. 2:16).
The baby Jesus is saved from Herod's fury by divine intervention (Matt. 2:13-15). God's plan of salvation will not be ended this way. But how many other children die? These innocents whom Herod slaughters are like so many others who suffer when great things are afoot, when the rulers of this world make their plans and carry them out with violence, heedless of collateral damage. They are indeed innocent, they know nothing of why this happens to them, but they pay the price of others' rage or fear or pride or greed or lust or foolishness.
This Sunday's Gospel makes me think of the children killed in war. It makes me think of children denied proper health care because of misplaced priorities in the richest nation in the world. It makes me think of the children of drug use and those who are victims of all kinds of abuse by adults. It makes me think not only of children, but of all who are caught up through no fault of their own in the evil of this world.
Wow! I'm going to post this. This is the downside of my thinking about these readings. Tomorrow I will try to see the light that Christmas shines in the darkness, even Herod's darkness.
2007-12-19 by David Howell
The Festival of Homiletics already has a tremendous line-up of speakers and musicians this year. We are delighted to announce that Jearlyn Steele will be joining us for vocals! You have heard Jearlyn if you listen to Prairie Home Companion. What a voice!
I am so excited that I am going over to the Sermon Feedback Cafe and exhange some high-fives with Dave, Tom, Shannon, Rick, Dee Dee and all the regulars. Order me up a Spiced Latte and a turkey on rye with some fancy, exotic, imported mustard.
Ahaz Advent and Joseph
2007-12-19 by David von Schlichten
Shannon's sermon and the articles in Lectionary Homiletics, along with discussion, prayer, and meditation, have led me to lean towards preaching this Sunday on Ahaz and Joseph. Both received signs from God. Joseph wasn't looking and Ahaz wasn't asking. Joseph responds favorably. Ahaz is largely a negative figure.
Over the years, I have heard many people and myself long for a sign. God offers Ahaz a sign, but he doesn't want one. God gives Joseph a sign in the form of a dream, and Joseph responds with proper action. Hmmmmmm.
Bubbling, bubbling, bubbling,
David von Schlichten, Lectionary Blog Moderator
2007-12-18 by Shannon Kershner
I was asked another question about my Joseph sermon. The writer wanted to know if I would change anything about it, now that I have preached it and received congregational response. Nope! I felt it was a faithful interpretation of the text and my congregation enjoyed coming into it from a different angle. They are always very open to my preaching style. And, I am blessed to be here because they know that even if (when?) they disagree with me, I can still be their pastor.
Response to a question
2007-12-18 by Shannon Kershner
I received a question after posting my blog entry last week asking if I knew the direction my sermon would take, or if I had an outline. I can do better than that! I will post the sermon. I always preach 4th Advent texts on the 3rd Sunday of Advent. Our 4th Advent Sunday is always a crazy mixture of hymnody, poetry, dance, drama, and Scripture. So here is what I preached about Joseph on 12-16-07:
Advent 3 (4th Sunday texts)
I am someone who never feels out of place at a cemetery. I suppose that’s partly due to my job. But I always find cemeteries fascinating. In particular, I like to walk around family plots so I can try to figure out who belongs with whom and look at how they are all remembered.
For example, most of my father’s family are all buried in a small cemetery in Ardmore, OK. And, simply by walking around in the plot, you can tell quite a bit about them. You have my great grandfather, a man I never knew, whose given name was Andrew but known as Papa. On his tombstone “Our Papa” is carved at the top. Then, there is the spot for my great-grandmother, Dovie, known as Nanny to me. Her tombstone simply reads “Our grandmother.” Next to her is the grave of her son, Odelle, who died as a young pilot, killed during WWII.
Then, you have the graves for my grandmother, Dorothy, and my grandfather, Ivan. Both of them died after I was ordained, so Dad and I co-officiated their services. Whenever I see their gravestones, I think of those sacred moments that he and I shared. Their gravestones simply say “Our Mom” and “Our Dad.”
And when you walk around those plots and pay attention, you can also surmise a few things about my family tree. You can see that both Odelle and my Grandpa Ivan were military men who each served in time of war. You can get a picture of the generations and the spans of their lives. But, even more striking to me, you can tell just by the gravestone inscriptions how important relationships are in my family. All of their inscriptions describe them, first and foremost, by the place they held as a part of the Johnson clan: our mom, our dad, our grandmother, our grandfather.
And, you can also tell just by their gravestones that my father’s family all lived rather simple lives. There is nothing fancy about their gravestones just as there was nothing fancy about their lives. They all got married young and had kids. They all worked a variety of blue-collar jobs until their bodies gave out. For the most part, they all did the best they knew how to do. They were simply Papa, Nanny, Grandma Dorothy and Grandpa Ivan. Just by looking at their gravestones, you can make some pretty good assumptions about who they were and how they lived their lives. And then, you can make some pretty good assumptions about me and the way I live coming from that kind of family tree.
I am pretty sure that is why Matthew starts his telling of the Christmas story with his own trip through the graveyard of Joseph’s family. The first 17 verses of his Gospel form a long and detailed description of who begat whom, a genealogy that goes all the way back to Father Abraham and travels through Joseph to Jesus. I thought about reading all of it for you. But then I talked to a preacher who did that one year. He said that his congregation’s eyes glazed over beginning in verse 7 and he never quite got them back. I did not want to take that chance. However, I do want to talk about the gravestones we find in Matthew’s cemetery because, like in Ardmore, OK, you can tell a lot about the family by what is written.
We need to start at the very back of Matthew’s cemetery, back near the fence. That is where we see the large gravestone of the patriarch of this entire clan—Abraham. On his stone is etched “The father of Isaac, the father of Jacob.” Unfortunately it does not say “the husband of Sarah” nor does it list Ishmael as another son. Like I said, you can tell a lot about families by what is said or unsaid on the gravestones. And surrounding Abraham’s stone, in that same space near the fence, are stones for Jacob, Jacob’s son Judah, and Judah’s own sons Perez and Zerah.
Now—we do have to note that on Zerah’s stone, he is listed as “The son of Judah and Tamar.” You may or may not remember Tamar from Genesis 38, but let me just put it to you this way: You would expect to find the story of how Tamar got pregnant with Judah’s child on Jerry Springer rather than in Holy Scripture. Biblical family values, huh. But, I digress... We must keep walking through these tombstones, noting who begat whom and seeing what other interesting details are etched into the history.
And again, here on the gravestones in Matthew’s cemetery, we find some other idiosyncracies--- things that might just tell us a bit about Joseph’s family tree and therefore, about Joseph himself. We find three other tombstones on which the names of the mothers are etched alongside the fathers’. In this biblical cemetery, we have to admit it is very strange to see the names of women even listed. As Fred Craddock puts it, in those times, women were just “also” people. You know how the biblical writers say it, like with the feeding of the 5000: “There were five thousand men present, and also women and children[i].” Also people. So the fact that women’s names are listed in the cemetery of Joseph’s family is very, very interesting indeed. Don’t you wonder what that means? Don’t you wonder what that tells us about Joseph, and therefore, about Jesus—the baby he took in as his own?
But just as startling as it is to see the names of those mothers etched alongside the names of all the fathers, it is even more startling when you consider the women’s own family trees. None of them are Jewish! You have Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Not a single one of them is from Jewish lineage. This is scandalous. In Father Abraham’s cemetery, where we see gravestones that span 42 generations of covenant people, we see the names of an Arab woman, a Palestinian woman, and, what we would call today a Jordanian woman[ii]. All thought to be outsiders to the covenant. All thought to be outsiders to the family tree. But all etched in stone as a valid part of the family. Again, we have to wonder what that means. What does that tell us about Joseph, and therefore, about Jesus—the baby he took in as his own?
For it is obvious that the caretakers of Matthew’s cemetery, the ones who tended the plots of Joseph’s family, wanted us to make some assumptions about them from the inscriptions on the gravestones. They wanted to communicate to us some things about Joseph. Traits that may explain how he was able to go against the grain when Mary finally told him what was happening in her womb. For you remember that at this time, engagement was not just a promise between two people. It was a legal contract between families. You could only break an engagement by going to the courts. Papers had been signed. Families had made decisions. And Joseph was engaged to Mary.
But then she tells him she is pregnant. I imagine she probably tried to explain what had happened – the whole angel Gabriel story, the whole Holy Spirit overshadowing experience, but don’t you just know that the whole time she was speaking, Joseph was too stunned to really listen or to respond. He must have been sick to his stomach trying to figure out what to do. He knew what the Bible told him to do. Deuteronomy 22: “She is to be taken out and stoned to death in front of the people.” That is what our Bible says.
But, thanks be to God, Joseph was not a biblical literalist. He did not just open it, pick up the verse, and slam it down on Mary’s head. Scripture tells us Joseph was a good man, a righteous man. He loved his Bible and he probably knew it backwards and forwards. But Joseph had also come to know a few other things about God that affected his interpretation of his beloved Scripture. And I think he knew those things because of what we saw on those gravestones in his family’s cemetery.
Joseph knew that God would sometimes work in ways that upset the applecart, in ways that were completely unexpected. All he had to do in order to remember that was to walk through his family’s cemetery and see all those women’s names on the tombstones. None of his other friends had women’s names etched on the stones of their family plot. It was just not done. So Joseph knew already that God sometimes did things that were “just not done.” He already knew that in his own family’s history God had thrown some curve balls, showering down grace upon those considered underserving and including those considered outcast and powerless.
Can’t you just see Joseph taking his Scripture to the cemetery and walking around those gravestones? Can’t you just see him praying for guidance? And then, can’t you just see him finally sitting down, maybe beside King David’s fancy gravestone, and deciding that he loved the living God, a God full of merciful surprises, far too much to use the Bible as a weapon for harm against Mary. After all, his entire family tree was full of people who never got what they deserved, but who were always recipients of grace upon grace. Think Abraham and Hagar. Think Jacob and Esau. Think David and Bathsheba. All of those stories were part of who Joseph was. All of those stories, all of his family’s own lineage, made it impossible for Joseph to simply be legalistic in his faith.
And so, with all the gravestone inscriptions and family stories running through his mind, Joseph decides to simply dismiss Mary quietly. He decides to simply let her go in a way that would keep her safe from harm, in a way that would keep that baby safe from harm. And immediately upon making that decision, as he goes to sleep that night with a sense of peace about what he was going to do, Joseph gets thrown a holy curve ball of his own. The angel comes to him in a dream, just as the angel had come to so many of his ancestors, tells him not to be afraid, and then tells Joseph the awkward truth about the baby Jesus and how he came to be created in Mary.
And then we are told that Joseph woke up from the dream and quietly followed the holy instructions. He woke up and took Mary as his wife, determining to be the best father he could to this holy child. He simply decided to live out of faith rather than fear.
We really should not be surprised at his response or his willingness to step out into new territory in faith. After all, look at whose graves make up his family plot. We see plenty of faithful scoundrels. Plenty of outsiders. Plenty of human beings who made plenty of mistakes, but all who kept being forgiven and brought back in by the living God. A God who, in Joseph’s eyes, was defined by mercy and the capacity for surprise. A God who, in Joseph’s eyes, was defined by a penchant for throwing curveballs and acting in ways that were totally unexpected, but totally life-giving and salvific.
It really is amazing what all you can learn about a person by walking around in his or her family’s cemetery plot, isn’t it. Thank God for Joseph and his willingness to learn from God’s action in his family tree. For Joseph’s response of faith has affected thousands of generations since. And the size of his family plot has grown way beyond what he could have ever imagined.
Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner
December 16, 2007
[i] Craddock, Fred. The Cherry Log Sermons. “God Is with Us.” Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001. Rev. Dr. Craddock was the one who helped open my eyes to the reason for the genealogy and helped me to envision it as a cemetery.
[ii] Again, an insight triggered by Craddock’s sermon.
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